Transportation Reform Heads To Governor’s Office

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By Meghna Chakrabarti (The Third Rail)

The Legislature has approved a sweeping transportation reform bill that eliminates the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, cuts MBTA employee benefits and puts most of the state’s transportation bureaucracy under a new super-authority, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Lawmakers claimed streamlining the state’s various transportation bureaucracies could save the Commonwealth $6.5 billion over the next 20 years. But unions, specifically at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the MBTA, said they were being unfairly hit by the blunt end of the reform measures.

Should the bill become law, MBTA employees would lose lucrative health care perks and be forced into the state group insurance plan as of January 1.

“The MassPike unions are the only unions that will lose their jobs, lose their rights, lose their bargaining agreements, and units, which is stunning. So they basically bust our union, totally,” said Karen Christie, head of the Steelworkers Local 5696.

The bill passed the House 130 to 25 and in the Senate by 27 to 11. That vote was closer than expected. Transportation committee co-chair Sen. Stephen Baddour, calls it a “veto-proof” majority. He also takes pains to reassure union leaders that their concerns have been heard.

“We really tried to do this in a way that was respectful to the collective bargaining agreement and to the union process. But at the end of the day, it’s a difficult, complicated bill,” Baddour said. “It’s going to require some difficult choices and difficult decisions.”

The 175-page bill was considered the most significant transportation overhaul attempted in a generation.

“The MassPike dinosaur is dead,” said Rep. David Linsky.

Linsky said he was thrilled the Turnpike Authority and the Highway Department would be replaced by the new Massachusetts Department of Transportation, or MassDOT.

The Natick representative also celebrated the bill’s “toll-equity” provision. It requires that toll revenues be spent in the district where they were collected. The bill also gives MassDOT the power to toll roads in downtown Boston.

While the Turnpike Authority could soon be gone, its $2 billion of Big Dig debt will not be forgotten. MassDOT inherits it.

Senate President Therese Murray called that another source of savings for the state. “It goes a long way to changing the way the debt is structured for the future and kind of shares the wealth and shares the debt for the entire Commonwealth,” she said.

Said Baddour of potential savings: “It doesn’t just move the debt to the new authority. It gives this new authority opportunities to refinance, so there’s savings there and we’ll continue to monitor that as we go forward.”

Financial analysts said it was possible for MassDOT to restructure the debt, but the state is unlikely to realize any savings without proving it has new long-term revenue sources to pay off the bonds.

One source could come from a budget measure that boosts the state sales tax, with $275 million in new receipts going to transportation. Lawmakers expect to vote on the budget later Friday.

Meanwhile, the transportation reform bill now goes to Gov. Deval Patrick, who offers only the most cautious of comments.

“I applaud the legislature for taking a very important step forward in transportation reform. The bill on first review contains a lot of the efficiencies and changes that we were looking for,” Patrick said. He added that he and his staff continue to analyze and reanalyze the bill.

The former chairman of the Transportation Finance Commission, Stephen Silveira, said that was a smart move. In principle, Silveira said the bill is similar to the reform recommendations the panel issued two years ago.

“This is still all going to come down to the execution, of it. So, I guess to use a sports analogy, it’s like we won the season and got into the playoffs and now we’ll see how we do,” Silveira said.